What might West Seattle’s first charter school be like? Here’s what Summit Public Schools’ regional executive says

(WSB photo, June 2015: 35th/Roxbury site purchased for charter-school development)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Before California-based charter-school operator Summit Public Schools even opens its first two campuses in our state, it’s in the thick of awareness-raising for its pending-state-approval third one, a middle/high school at a supermarket-turned-church in Arbor Heights.

That awareness-raising includes a public forum at the planned West Seattle site on July 21st – a key test Summit must pass before the state Charter School Commission decides whether to let it go ahead with its plan (which is spelled out in this 472-page application).

We’ve been reporting on the Arbor Heights plan since we dug early word out of a city file at the start of the year. But much of our coverage in the ensuing six months has focused on the physical plan for the school, planned for the southwest corner of 35th/Roxbury, the property recently sold by Freedom Church/Jesus Center to Washington Charter School Development for $4.75 million. Meanwhile, our reports have sparked comment discussions on what might or might not happen at the school. While voters in our state approved charter schools – which are public schools, run with public dollars (explained here) – three years ago, so far only one is open.

More are about to launch – the prospective operator of West Seattle’s first charter school, Summit, is getting ready to open two charter high schools in the International District and in Tacoma next month. The school year starts in mid-August; they’re moving into the locations on August 3rd. While overseeing all that, the woman in charge of Summit’s operations in this state – including the West Seattle middle/high school – sat down with us for a conversation this week.

Here’s what we learned while talking with Jen Davis Wickens, who leads Summit’s “schools team” for Washington:

The Seattle and Tacoma schools will start with 115 ninth-graders each and will add a grade a year for each of the next three years, reaching full enrollment at just over 400 students each. The West Seattle school is planned as a middle and high school, so it would launch in fall of next year with 6th and 9th grades, also around 100 students per grade. Summit operates middle and high schools in California, where it was founded more than a decade ago, Wickens said.

Why just run the first two as high schools? It’s because of the five-year duration of the Washington charter law, she said – “we intentionally (are launching) the first two as high schools so we can show college-entrance data when the law (comes up for renewal).” If the law is renewed, they will consider adding middle-school grades to those first two schools. “We’d rather have a longer runway – we want to have more time to get students truly, truly ready.” (No elementary, she says – that’s outside the college-prep mission.)

“College track,” she says, is the only “track” in Summit schools, meaning that all students take the courses required to be considered for college, not necessarily the only track in “comprehensive” high schools. A key point of how she says Summit operates is monitoring and intervention: “We just do not let kids fail – we can do that because we’re small and nimble.” That includes the actual process of applying to college – she says a “college director” meets with each family to help them with it, and that there’s a group event at which “everybody gets together and hits ‘send'” on applications, as well as community congratulations “every time a kid gets in.” But on a more day-to-day basis, she explains, a “mentor” is assigned for every 18 students, and works with them as they progress through grades. Students have “personalized learning plans” that are kept online where, she says, parents, students, and teachers all can see how it’s going, rather than potentially going for weeks or months either flailing or not being challenged enough.

That’s part of a structure that Wickens says looks “wildly different” from a traditional public school – part of the day working on the “personalized” plan, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups, sometimes with their “mentor.” They have “tiered intervention” for reading and math. And 25 percent of each student’s “experience” involves what Summit has dubbed “expeditions” – from exploring “personal passions” such as the arts or other electives, to community-service projects, and beyond. (The mural-painting mentioned in our report in mid-May was described as “expedition”-style work for the future Summit students who were participating.)

While the students work on their “expeditions,” teachers get 40 days of “paid professional development,” according to Wickens, which she says is a draw for “top national talent.”

About the teachers: Charter skeptics/critics have voiced concerns about who Summit will hire here and what qualifications they’ll have. The Summit application states clearly that they will be employed “at will” – non-union – so that’s one big difference from non-charter public schools. Wickens says our state requires teachers to have Washington credentials, “not an easy process,” and that all the teachers in their first two schools “have credentials in hand” as of earlier this week.

But when we mention Teach For America – a program that some skeptics/critics say has put underqualified teachers in schools – Wickens says, “We’re really supportive of that work, and the need to cultivate more (teaching) talent. We believe in a portfolio approach to teachers – we would never have a school full of first-year teachers … This year we don’t have any TFA corps members,” but a “handful” of “alumni” from the program. She also mentions two teachers from other local districts – Seattle, Highline – on the staff of the schools they’re about to open, and “seed teachers” from Summit schools in Northern California’s Bay Area. “We won’t mess around with any of the compliance – we know there’s a lot of questions about charters,” and, she says, they don’t want to provide any fuel for that fire.

The West Seattle school’s designated principal, Greg Ponikvar, is waiting in the wings, ready to start what they call the “zero year” if and when they get state approval. He’s been with the Summit organization in California for a long time, Wickens says, and launched the “expeditions” program; she says he is in the process of moving to West Seattle and “can’t wait to build roots” here. His work for the next year would include spending “a lot of time” in the first two Summit schools here.

So what does a day look like, we ask, given the “wildly different” description? First: The school year is longer, starting three weeks before traditional public schools, ending a week earlier. (A six-week summer-school program will be offered too, she said, for those in need of and interested in “extra support.”) The school day tends to be “slightly longer,” Wickens explains, in the 8:30 am-3 pm vicinity. It includes “community time,” personalized learning time, project-based-learning time. She mentions students working together yet at different levels of the same program or project. For technology, it’s “a 1 to 1 student to computer ratio – all students have Chromebooks, all of our campuses are wireless.”

One component of the “community time” relates to their disciplinary model, which she describes as “restorative justice.” While she reiterates that they follow state law if students do something requiring suspensions or expulsion, otherwise, if it’s an issue such as “acting out in class,” they work on “strategies”: “We want everybody to thrive and get into college – we do everything we can to keep them in school.”

What about students with baseline challenges such as English Language Learners or special education? For ELL, Wickens says, “we anticipate serving the same percentage (as non-charter public schools) – we try to mirror the demographics of the district. It’s a mainstream program, with push-in and pullout support.” For special education, each school will have its own SPED director. She notes that SPED families are attracted to Summit because every student has an individual learning plan, not just those with challenges, “so it’s not weird, there’s less stigma – our model is set up to be (entirely) differentiated.”

As for the practicalities of operating schools have been a challenge too – “who’s going to provide our lunch, transportation, janitorial services” – and Wickens says Summit has partnered with Green Dot, another charter organization that is opening schools in this state this fall, “to get this work done together.”

That leads us to ask about transportation for the West Seattle school – will it have its own buses for some students, or will it be entirely a matter of getting there via Metro or personally provided transportation? “If approved, we’ll start a parent advisory group (to) talk about place-based issues for the community,” such as transportation. “For the (International District) and Tacoma schools, we decided with parents that it made sense to get ORCA passes for all the kids – we get state transportation funding that you must use for transportation,” so that’s what they bought with it. Transportation also is a matter of “personalized plans” for their students, she said, including providing families with a list of others within a mile of their residence, “so they can reach out for carpools.”

As for who those families will be – recruitment, she says, starts in earnest after the approval is received. If they have more applications than spots, a “random public lottery” will be used; applicants will get a lottery number in March. In the meantime, interested families will have opportunities to tour the two Summit schools that are about to open.

Before then – there’s the July 21st “community forum,” which will be at the West Seattle site (9601 35th SW), 6-8 pm, with dinner and child care. “We really want people to come – it’s a perfect opportunity, whether you’re supportive or a complete opponent,” Wickens said. Summit will have a presentation; Q/A and “community testimony” will be included. “It’s a great chance for someone to say whether they do or don’t want us in the community, to ask the really hard questions, to get the right answers.” Some West Seattle students are enrolled in the International District school that’s about to open, and she says their families will be at the forum. Almost all the ID students are from south of the Ship Canal, and Wickens describes the enrollment as 78 percent students of color; in Tacoma, they’re launching with 82 percent students of color, mostly from that city but a few students from Fife and other nearby districts.

Before we wrap up our conversation, we talk about a few more points of clarification. In a comment discussion, there was a suggestion that families have to donate time and/or money. “They’re welcome to … but not required,” Wickens says. “There’s no required volunteer time or donated money. We have set up ways parents can engage in the school, but the school and model don’t depend on parent volunteers.”

Then: Why is a separate organization – Washington Charter School Development, linked to a California nonprofit that does the same thing – building the school?

“Charter school facilities are an enormous challenge, even more here than we’d anticipated… It costs a lot of money … and there are many requirements to be able to renovate sites and eve be able to have us have kids in a site safely, pass inspections. They (WCSD) know how to do this, set up spaces for kids … We’re lucky to have them here; they received grant funding to find and renovate and purchase facilities for Summit and Green Dot … we will lease it back from them at a fair-market rate, part of our criteria for coming to Washington.”

For more specifics about the building plan itself – which we reported most recently is now going to be done in phases, with renovation of the existing building first, then adding on later – we’re referred to WCSD, so that will be part of a future followup. Wickens is more about what’s going to be happening inside the school.

Assuming the charter for West Seattle is approved, she says, Ponikvar will start August 17th, meeting with people, “going door-to-door literally, phone banking, being at festivals, community organizing, listening to the needs of the families, to (ensure) that every single family in White Center and West Seattle knows that Summit’s an option for them if they’re an incoming sixth or ninth grader [for fall 2016].” (The organization already is doing outreach – shortly after our interview with Wickens, a reader texted us about flyers for the forum being distributed near 35th/Henderson.)

And there’s another goal, Wickens volunteers: “The second part of our mission is to impact public education on a broader scale,” to spread what Summit calls “next-generation learning” to other charters and to existing public-school districts. She says they “give everything away for free” regarding their program models.

Critics/skeptics point out that education reformers have lavished cash on charters – for example, the donors who fund the California parent of WCSD, which bought and will develop the West Seattle site for Summit. Wickens’ view: “Because I’m so close to the work, I see that what we do is transformative for kids and families. Where the money comes from is less important than actually getting the kid to college. That changes their future. To not allow kids to have access to that future – I have a hard time with that argument.”

Here’s more information on the July 21st public forum in West Seattle – including how to send written comments if you can’t be there in person.

33 Replies to "What might West Seattle's first charter school be like? Here's what Summit Public Schools' regional executive says"

  • WSMom July 9, 2015 (7:15 am)

    I’m assuming this school will pull from more than the Seattle Public Schools but also Highline?

    • WSB July 9, 2015 (7:28 am)

      There’s no particular residency requirement, so it could – given that Highline’s boundary starts just blocks away, including the unincorporated area east of Arbor Heights and west of White Center.

  • Greg July 9, 2015 (7:58 am)

    Great article, great interview. These people are total snake oil salespeople. So depressed that this will be in town.

  • Paul July 9, 2015 (8:24 am)

    Compared to the jokers running SPS, these snake oil folks might not be so bad. I’ll be watching this with a lot of interest.

    Thanks for the thorough coverage of this!

  • Greg July 9, 2015 (9:05 am)

    I agree that the people running SPS have issues — but they are also supporting the Charters! Enfield is very pro-Charter. Highline is already basically doing the same curriculum as Summit — its kinda surprising actually how similar they are and the rhetoric they use. I wonder why they only open Charter schools in poor neighborhoods — I wonder why Medina isn’t the first place they set up shop. I mean Bill Gates sends his kids to private school…maybe he’d like an alternative option where teachers are paid just $18 an hour and can be fired for no reason (aka they are not fudging the stats to help this charter ponzi-scheme keep going).

  • Greg July 9, 2015 (9:51 am)

    It should also be noted that SPS is paying for the whole enterprise. From “Attachment 28” of their application: “SPS will provide a $4.15M start-­up grant to the school over the 5 years of operation.”

    This is how they will fund very low student-teacher ratios. They are also exempt from paying teachers according to the state salary allocation model which means they will low-ball their “world class” “at-will” employees. They want people with an M.A. who are willing to work 70 hour work weeks for little to no pay as glorified test preparation people to create “the data” they need to justify opening more schools.

    Its a scam.

  • Greg July 9, 2015 (10:11 am)

    Last comment for now: also from their application. It appears that while they take tax payer money, the tax payers have no say in the day to day operations of the school. The Summit people appoint their own school board (what they call the “WA Board”) and parent/community input is limited to an “advisory” role.

    WSB I have a question that you might know the answer to. Are the Charter schools subject to the same public records requests as our actual public schools? As a tax payer its hard to know what charter operators are doing if they stack the deck against transparency (and that is what this is regardless of their Sanfordized rhetoric).

    • WSB July 9, 2015 (10:20 am)

      Great question, and I don’t know the answer, and I have to be honest, will not be able to spend time right now looking it up … but if nobody else comes up with the answer I will check it out this afternoon. Might be easily Googlable but I am mired in a few things as we try to keep the flow going AND get ready for residency at Summer Fest the next three days …

  • j July 9, 2015 (11:32 am)

    This location should not be allowed. It should stay zoned business/residential.

    • WSB July 9, 2015 (11:37 am)

      J, there’s no zoning change involved here. That would be a much-longer process but apparently this use is allowed under current zoning, so it’s not needed.

  • j July 9, 2015 (11:58 am)

    Ok thanks for info. I guess what i meant was…i grew up in AH and this was a grocery store. One that we could walk to. I used to also be able to walk to Nichols Market on 100th.
    Changing this prime location into a charter school will effectively eliminate any chance for a nearby store/deli/restaurant within walking distance.
    The goal of our city and its residents is to have well balanced neighborhoods. Is it not?
    Oh well, we’ll just get in our car and drive.
    Obviously this is a done deal.

  • Paul July 9, 2015 (12:50 pm)

    This location will never be a grocery store as long as Safeway is in the neighborhood. Safeway put that restriction on the property when they sold it. Ditto for a pharmacy or gas station.

    There were several restaurants on the opposite corner, but they all failed. Selling pot is evidently a better business opportunity than running a restaurant at this intersection. Maybe not such a prime location after all?

    • WSB July 9, 2015 (12:57 pm)

      While the change isn’t as rapid as, say, The Junction, this area continues to densify – they don’t always rise to the level of inclusion in our periodic development updates, but there have been more and more teardown-to-townhouse-type projects along 35th in the blocks north of Roxbury. That might eventually change the business mix.

  • Azimuth July 9, 2015 (1:21 pm)

    At least their graduates will feel comfortable when they spend their post-graduate careers at a grocery store.

  • Joe Szilagyi July 9, 2015 (1:28 pm)

    “This location will never be a grocery store as long as Safeway is in the neighborhood. Safeway put that restriction on the property when they sold it. Ditto for a pharmacy or gas station.”
    I keep seeing this but can never find evidence, unless I missed it. Is there proof?

  • Silverback July 9, 2015 (1:40 pm)

    Safeway puts a restriction on the deed when they sell the properties. The Uhaul store at 35th and Morgan was a Safeway store too.

  • Juice July 9, 2015 (2:08 pm)

    NO!!! That property should totally be a Dick’s

  • Paul July 9, 2015 (2:27 pm)

    Joe, you can find the documentation if you go into the King County eReal Property system on their web site. I have posted the link on WSB before. I think it was in the comments for one of the stories about the sale of the PCC property.

    It is in the documentation from the real estate transaction when Safeway sold it.

  • j July 9, 2015 (3:50 pm)

    Silverback thanks for the info. That’s news to me and is rather upsetting.

    However Paul, Safeway is not “in the neighborhood”. I live in the neighborhood of Arbor Heights in the city of Seattle of which I pay taxes to.

    Safeway is in unincorporated King County.

    For those that know please inform me.
    How does a business NOT in the city of Seattle dictate what types of businesses can operate within its city limits?

    Does DPD approve these transactions?

    Do other businesses control neighborhoods limited business/commercial sites in this manner?

    Does the city really want us to get out of our cars???
    Safeway closed a store in White Center and a store in Arbor Heights and remodeled the store in the middle. We went from three stores to one. Not like I go to this store anyway. If I’m getting in my car I’m not driving to Safeway.

    What if restaurants could do this? Or can they?

  • anonyme July 9, 2015 (4:46 pm)

    Good points, j.

    I agree with Greg. Lots of catch-phrases and contradictions by Wickens, and more questions raised than answered. I really enjoyed her comment “It’s a great chance for someone to say whether they do or don’t want us in the community”…as if we had a choice.

    The notion that this school will be strictly college-track while being open to kids from all backgrounds and abilities is also problematic. What if a kid “gasp” is better suited to blue collar work? Will they somehow mysteriously disappear from the lottery drawing? It’s also telling that she doesn’t care where the money comes from. She bloody well should.

  • justme July 9, 2015 (4:58 pm)

    Am I the only one around who wishes this area wasn’t considered to be West Seattle? Anything near Roxbury will always be White Center to me. Even Westwood Village I consider to be White Center, not West Seattle.

  • j July 9, 2015 (5:19 pm)

    Tracy thanks for the links.

    Even more disturbing when you sum up that a business in Vermont closed two of its three stores thus locking out two neighborhood properties from having a grocery, pharmacy or gas because they are within 5 miles as crow flies of another Safeway. 5 miles is not walking distance. Not as big a deal for WC cause they have many commercial lots. So essentially a company in Vermont all the way across the country is allowed to influence our city plan of a walkable city and well balanced neighborhoods. Makes sense to me.

    Furthermore many investors from Illinois to California bought the property for millions, operated a tax free company for a couple of years then sold it for about double… making millions.

    Brilliant! Absolutely perfectly planned by all and completely brilliant.

  • Reckoner July 9, 2015 (6:57 pm)

    A charter school at this location is a huge disappointment for this AH resident and parent of 2 young kids. If this for-profit company really wanted to cash in, they should develop this site to its full potential. This site would offer sweeping views if it were close in height to the existing apts across the street. It’s located on two frequent svc transit routes and on the edge of a neighborhood desperately in need of retail destinations within walking distance. With all that space they could accomplish all of this and still host a charter school. My kids absolutely will not be attending this school (we’ll have two brand new schools in the neighborhood in the next year).

  • bertha July 9, 2015 (7:33 pm)

    Anonyme – if a kid better suited to blue collar work then I would assume the parents would not choose a college prep high school, charter or public. No one is forcing families to choose this school.

  • Community Member July 9, 2015 (10:49 pm)

    They boast that every student will be accepted to a four year college, not necessarily attend a four year college. Don’t be overly impressed – that’s really not hard to accomplish, as many four year colleges accept all high school graduates. It just means that a focus of the school is that all students will be walked through the application process. They aren’t promising that everyone will go to UW.
    Oh, and all the public schools are supposed to be meeting that sort of standard. That’s what the Common Core stuff is all about.
    I really, really want the state legislature to amend the law so that the Charters are under the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. If you don’t like Seattle School Board, and think there should be competition, fine. But that competition should be subject to the same laws if they are receiving tax dollars.

  • anonyme July 10, 2015 (7:28 am)

    bertha – and that is EXACTLY what makes charter schools private schools using public tax dollars. This set-up reeks of hypocrisy.

  • G July 10, 2015 (9:35 am)

    Sure, let’s scrutinize and vilify charter schools when the Seattle Public Schools are producing too many young adults who are functionally math illiterate and can’t write a simple essay. Let’s misdirect all the attention to charter schools when the real problem is the SPS and their formulaic clumsy teaching methods, especially when it comes to subjects like math. This is a territorial fight.

  • Zark00 July 10, 2015 (12:10 pm)

    G what makes you think SPS produces illiterate kids? You have access to data the rest of the world can’t see? Brilliant deduction that for profit schools will fix that instead of actually passing a funding levy. Pull your head out and smell reality. Charter schools are failing nationwide.http://www.nea.org/home/33177.htm
    Do some research, or maybe your for profit charter didn’t teach you how to do that. Or you think Stanford is a bad school too.

  • G July 10, 2015 (2:50 pm)


    Get back to me after you’ve had your cookies and milk.

  • Melissa Westbrook July 10, 2015 (3:44 pm)

    First, fabulous coverage by WS Blog, thanks.

    Greg asked, ” Are the Charter schools subject to the same public records requests as our actual public schools?”

    That depends. It is likely they have to follow the rules for any kind of documentation (including e-mail) as a regular public school for disclosure. However, they do not have to open their books or their minutes to public scrutiny. This has been true in other states and, while I haven’t read the law in awhile, I think their Board records don’t have to be open.

    So the college admission claims are likely true. But the absolute key – what is their attrition rate? Because if you can get rid of kids who are not doing well or have behavior problems, then it is much easier to get the outcomes you want.

    I am highly skeptical of the claim of a Special Ed director at EACH school. I’d be willing to bet that when they all open, there will not be.

    The question of the law itself is in the hands of the Supreme Court. They heard oral arguments way back in October and have been silence since. What I heard is that they are waiting for the Legislature to finish on McCleary work (and it’s been a long wait).

    I believe the Court will split the baby (as opposed to throwing out the law even though I think it should be). The issue comes down to our wonderful Constitution which is fairly unique in the country in its address to public ed.

    They use the term “common schools” for public schools.

    We know charters are public schools but are they “common schools?”

    There’s the rub.

    So the Court can either say, “yes they are but then that means – also in the Constitution – that the State Superintendent of Public Instruction does have to oversee them (to some degree).

    So either they are “common schools” and get the state dollars but also have oversight by OSPI OR they are not “common schools” and will get no dollars.

    I also believe that the first charter that invokes the petition clause of the law where they can take over an existing school and use its building (kicking out the existing school community), you will see another lawsuit.

  • Greg July 17, 2015 (3:39 pm)

    I did some research. According to RCW 28A.710.040 2 (h) they have to comply with all the same rules as REAL public schools regarding information and open meetings. Let the information requests begin! Or better yet, let’s hope community parents are smarter than these Stanford corporate raiders and send their kids elsewhere.

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